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​Photos left to right by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns, by Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images.
Photos left to right by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns, by Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images.

Black Music Month: Jazz Greats Then and Now

For our celebratory content series, we’re starting off with groundbreaking jazz innovators.

Black music has always inspired, innovated and lasted the test of time. Jazz in particular, created in Louisiana in the 19th century, has endured in a special way. With over a century's worth of music to draw from, jazz has evolved through the times, pushed forward by the greats that have accentuated its history. Here, to kick off Black Music Month, Okayplayer is showing love to a few jazz acts, from way back in the genre’s early days, to some acts forging their own lane in 2024.

John Coltrane

One of the immovable pillars of jazz, John Coltrane truly loved the artform. A premiere saxophonist, Coltrane’s technical ability, improvisational skills and willingness to expand the very idea of jazz, made him who he is. One of the most fascinating things about Coltrane, is that he was a student of life. Whether it be striving to learn more about music or looking deeply into religious and philosophical beliefs, his open-mindedness was something special.

Miles Davis

Miles Davis’ name is synonymous with jazz, and for good reason. Making his name through his skills as a trumpeter, Davis always found a way to reinvent himself and change with the times. He truly grew with jazz, and ushered in its very evolution while he was at it. A truly prolific artist who released over 60 albums, including classics like 1959’s Kind of Blue and 1970’s Bitches Brew. There is no one like MIles Davis, and he is a testament to dedication, creativity and loving what you do.

Billie Holiday

One of the most well-known and respected jazz singers of all time, Billie Holiday’s impact cannot be understated. Her unique tone, voice, and improvisation changed how jazz singing could be done, and influenced other legends, like Frank Sinatra. In addition to her talents, she sang “Strange Fruit,” a song about America’s history of lynching African Americans, one of the biggest songs to ever address racism at that level. Either way you look at it, Billie was a supremely talented, one-of-one singer and she used her music for activism and to stand up for her people.

Thelonius Monk

In the world of music, Thelonius Monk is a top tier pianist, and he used his unique style to revolutionize jazz. Using unorthodox timing and key-playing styles, Thelonius Monk created his own sound, blending aggression and smooth melodies. In short, Thelonius was something of a jack of all trades behind the piano, except he was actually an elite talent at all of it. In addition to that, the only jazz composer who had more recordings than him, was Duke Ellington.

Ezra Collective

The London-based quintet Ezra Collective, composed of TJ Koleoso, Joe Armon-Jones, Femi Koleoso, Ife Ogunjobi and James Mollison, have made a lot of noise in a short time. Formed in 2016, they are already four projects deep, have won two MOBO Awards and a Mercury Prize. Ezra Collective represents a new era of modern jazz, where they draw inspiration from rap, R&B, Afrobeat, reggae and more, while making it work in a seamless package.

Robert Glasper

Crafting himself into a very popular pianist and producer, Robert Glasper is one of the biggest names in modern jazz. Glasper’s strength lies in his malleability; his mastery of his instrument and genre allows him to work with a litany of names, whether it be rap, R&B or otherwise. Glasper is always willing to push the envelope, and make magic while he’s at it.